He is called the "citizen chronicler" by Librarian of Congress James Billington. His books have led a renaissance of interest in American history--from learning about a flood in Pennsylvania that without warning devastated an entire community to discovering the private achievements and frailties of an uncelebrated president. His biography of Harry Truman won him a Pulitzer, as did his most recent biography of another president, John Adams.
David McCullough throws himself into the research of his subjects, tracing the roads they traveled, reading the books they read, and seeing the homes they lived in. His diligence pays off in detailed and engaging narratives. In receiving an honorary degree from Yale University the citation praised him: “As an historian, he paints with words, giving us pictures of the American people that live, breath, and above all, confront the fundamental issues of courage, achievement, and moral character.”
Meeting Thornton Wilder at Yale as an undergraduate inspired McCullough to become a writer--his first love, in fact, had been art. While at college he also met his wife, Rosalee. He learned his craft working at Sports Illustrated, at the United States Information Agency, and at American Heritage. McCullough researched and wrote his first book in the precious hours away from his job with American Heritage; The Johnstown Flood came out in 1968. It was a story and region familiar to McCullough, who was born and raised in nearby Pittsburgh. The book was a success and he became a full-time author. Since then, McCullough has given us six more books--The Great Bridge, The Path between the Seas, Mornings on Horseback, Brave Companions, Truman, and John Adams--earning him two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, and two Francis Parkman Prizes from the American Society of Historians. His other honors include a Charles Frankel Prize, a National Book Foundation Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award, and a New York Public Library’s Literary Lion Award.
The Citizen Chronicler
BY JAMES BILLINGTON
David McCullough is the citizen chronicler of the American story for our time.
McCullough is a unique--and uniquely American--humanist. He is a historian who immerses himself deeply in primary materials, a literary artist of the first order, and a trusted person who has projected serious reflection out to an unprecedentedly wide audience.
He is a humanist in the literal meaning of that word. He is interested in people rather than "the people." He takes the reader inside the social and mental worlds in which his subjects live; and he lets them speak for themselves with generous and illuminating citations from their own writings and speeches.
McCullough has spoken of the inspiration Thornton Wilder provided him when McCullough was an undergraduate at Yale. Wilder was the author not only of the quintessentially American play Our Town, but also of the tragic tale of the five people in The Bridge of St. Luis Rey who lost their lives when that bridge collapsed in eighteenth-century South America. McCullough wrote his first two major books about an even greater tragedy and a far larger bridge in nineteenth-century North America; and he somehow made us all feel that wherever we lived these things happened in our town.
He tells us that seeing pictures of the Johnstown flood at the Library of Congress got him started. And his entire subsequent historical writing is filled with images that help us see and hear people and places from the American past at important points in our history.
His first three books were written about inanimate objects: The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, and The Path Between the Seas. But McCullough's focus was always on the human beings who created and were affected by each of these "things." The Path Between the Seas was a progression over forty-four years of the creation of the Panama Canal, and it pointed to the new direction that his work would shortly take, because it covered the widely diverse and often unexpected cast of characters that participated in the drama. Next came the first of his presidential biographies, Mornings on Horseback. It took the story of Theodore Roosevelt only up to his second marriage in 1886, but McCullough managed (as one academic reviewer noted) to make a special contribution to a well-worked subject by taking "the entire family as his subject, and recreating the human formation of this often-superhuman personality."
His next book, Brave Companions, was a collection of vignettes about a wide variety of people often depicted as "figures in a landscape." In this, as in all his subsequent work, McCullough paints pictures with words. Indeed, McCullough's "earliest ambition was to be an artist . . . a portrait painter," he writes. The book begins with the story of how John Singer Sargent started his famous painting of Theodore Roosevelt. His lead essay in the collection is on the great intellectual polymath Alexander von Humboldt. It begins with young Humboldt arriving at the White House with Charles Willson Peale for an intellectual summit with Thomas Jefferson; it ends with Jefferson, the aged sage, sitting without any of his decorations for a final portrait.
The epic stories he tells include victimized as well as victorious figures. His range of human sympathies is as broad as the audience he reaches. He reports on past events like a good journalist, but without practicing what the French call haute vulgarization (a simplified account based on other people's research). McCullough begins his major works by immersing himself in the time, the place, the menus and the reading lists of his key characters--preferably by visiting the spots where they lived, tasting the food that they ate, and reading the books that shaped their thinking. As an independent scholar, he is not beholden to any of the ideological causes or methodological fads that often take possession of otherwise good historians in bureaucratized academia--and cause them to end up writing more for each other than for a general audience. Unlike many revisionist historians, McCullough basically likes what he is writing about; yet he seeks to clear away myths for which he can find no factual basis.
In an age of deconstruction and taking things apart, McCullough is a partisan of putting things together--preferably in libraries with gardens, the two ingredients he seeks above all to include in the national memorial in Washington that he is championing for John Adams. McCullough wants the Adams memorial to be small and modest like the house that Adams lived in for most of his life. McCullough himself writes in a small room and insists that nothing of quality has ever been written in a very large space.
I will always remember the first time I met David McCullough at work. It was in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, and he was seated at a reading desk just like everyone else, even though he was already a well-known figure. What set him off then--as now--was his infectious enthusiasm at the experience of getting lost in the early nineteenth century. Insofar as he talked about anything else, it was about the great outdoors--as if he was compensating for not himself spending "mornings on horseback" writing about someone who did.
His biographies of two exemplary American presidents have been the crowning achievement of his recent creative life. He has almost single-handedly elevated both Harry Truman and John Adams from modest prior respect to the foothills of Mount Rushmore. This is particularly remarkable, since neither of these men was a charismatic figure or left office with high popular esteem. Both, moreover, had the misfortune to be sandwiched between two presidents who were of historic stature: Washington and Jefferson in the case of Adams, Franklin Roosevelt and Eisenhower in the case of Truman.
It is inevitable that such a popular historian should be subjected to a variety of challenges and criticisms by academic historians. A frequent professorial complaint is that there is too much storytelling and not enough social and psychological analysis. But his accuracy and eye for illustrative detail have been widely recognized--as have the frequent insights embedded in his narratives. He is sometimes faulted for being too admiring of his subjects. He does infuse his work with the optimism, energy and exuberance of awakening America at the end of the nineteenth into the mid-twentieth century, the period of his first three books, and he extends this positive approach in his massive biographies of Truman and Adams.
Ancient chroniclers often wrote down their stories so that they could read them aloud to kings and courtiers. In like manner, this chronicler of democratic heroes speaks as engagingly as he writes. No one who heard him could forget his galvanizing lecture on Theodore Roosevelt, delivered without a single note, in the White House of George H.W. Bush; or his appeal, addressed to the joint session of Congress on the occasion of the bicentennial of our first branch of government, that historians should write more about the history of Congress and about its key leaders. He pointed out that there have been a dozen biographies of Senator Joseph McCarthy but none at all of many of the most important leaders of Congress, such as Senator Justin Morrill, who created our system of land-grant universities. Fortunately, the Congress itself has taken up this task. Senator Robert C. Byrd has written The Senate, 1789-1989, and the House of Representatives has commissioned the Library of Congress to prepare a history of the House, which is currently being done by the distinguished American historian Robert Remini.
McCullough appears on the Smithsonian World television series, and audiences all over America have established him without any need for promotional fanfare as a trusted spokesman on--and for--American history today. He has recently become an eloquent champion of reviving and deepening the neglected study of American history in our schools and colleges.
There is a tone of old-fashioned moral indignation about the loss of memory and shrinking of imaginative horizons that the disintegration of basic historical knowledge creates for our young people. He conveys a moral message with vivid illustrations rather than moralistic rhetoric. His bicentennial address to the Congress contrasted the old face clock in Statuary Hall that reminds us of past and future as well as present time with the new digital clocks that tells us only what time it is now.
At this time of trial and testing in our national life, the chronicler of America is now going back to the very beginnings of our nation. Many specialists will never be satisfied that David McCullough has dealt with all the controversies and covered all aspects of the people he tells us about; but no one tells stories better, and no one in our time has probably stimulated more people to go on thinking and reading and exploring the rich record of American history.
It is appropriate that this man, who has done so much to increase the reputation of John Adams vis-a-vis Thomas Jefferson, should be giving the National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture. McCullough is currently exploring the year 1776, in which battles were fought and a new kind of self-government brought into being. He loves the beginnings of great enterprises, and he knows how to talk to a large group in a way that makes the individual feel like a young person listening to an older relative talking by an open fireplace.
My mother used to say that Bach really knew how to end a piece of music. David McCullough brought the Library of Congress's National Book Festival to a close this past year, speaking to a packed audience on a rain-soaked mall at a time when the Washington sniper was still on the prowl. He painted a marvelous word picture of one of his heroes, John Adams, as Adams decided to become a lawyer; and he concluded his talk with a brief word about our current foreign danger that suggests that his enlightenment and elegance rest on a bedrock of good New England granite:
On the night of August 22nd, a Sunday, when, after having attended church all day (which was to be a lifelong habit for John Adams), he went out under the stars, so inspired by the sermon, he said, and also in a state of euphoria . . . and he wrote of the glorious shows of nature overhead and of the intense sense of pleasure they evoked. Beholding the night sky, the amazing concave of heaven, sprinkled and glittering with stars, he was thrown, he wrote, into a kind of transport and knew that such wonders were the gifts of God, expressions of God's love--but that the greatest gift of all, he was certain, was the gift of an inquiring mind. He would become a lawyer. "But all the provisions that He"--God--"has [made] for the gratification of our senses . . . are much inferior to the provision, the wonderful provision that He has made for the gratification of our nobler powers of intelligence and reason. He has given us reason to find out the truth and the real design and true end of our existence."
To a friend Adams wrote, "It will be hard . . . " meaning the studies that were still ahead of him--"But the point is now determined, and I shall have the liberty to think for myself."
We face a foe today who believes in enforced ignorance. We don't.
A Perfect Pandemonium
There was great shouting from down below, and up ahead, on top of the tower, people were waving hats and handkerchiefs. Then all at once, as he went swinging out over the housetops between the anchorage and the tower, Farrington freed himself from the rope about his chest and stood up on the seat. Holding on first with one hand, then the other, he lifted his hat in response to the continuing ovation. Then he sat down again. People were running through the streets beneath him now, shouting and cheering as they ran. He waved, he blew them kisses. Sailing steadily along all the while, his course was nearly horizontal at first, like that of a heavy bird taking flight, because of the sag in the rope. His light coat blew open and began fluttering in the wind. And then he was beyond the sag and climbing sharply, almost straight up, a coat--flapping, gently twirling form that looked very small, fragile, and very birdlike now against the granite face of the tower.
A tremendous cheer went up from the streets and rooftops, followed quickly by a salute from the little cannon across the river. His time from anchorage to tower was three and three-quarter minutes. . . .
Again the signal flag waved and the rope started and the minute he swung away from the tower there was another outburst of cheering. This time all those crowded along the wharves were joined by thousands more on board the innumerable boats and ferries that had gathered for the occasion. All normal traffic on the river had stopped. From the towers it looked almost as though one could walk across just by stepping from boat to boat.
Farrington went sailing over the river, waving, lifting his hat, very obviously having a glorious time, but he stayed seated. Then a steam tug directly beneath him let loose with its shrill whistle. Instantly a dozen others joined in. In seconds every boat on the river was sounding its approval as the tiny figure of a man went soaring overhead, "to all appearances self-propelled," spinning around every now and then, the rope he dangled from all but invisible against the sky.
From THE GREAT BRIDGE. Copyright © 1972 by David McCullough. Reprinted with permission.
Time Out for War
Miriam Rothschild, now a renowned naturalist, played a different role in World War II in England, where her family estate became an airfield for American fliers.
At one time, during the Second World War, there were six thousand Americans billeted in and about Ashton, and every year there are some who come back for a visit. They were part of the Eighth Air Force. The Rothschild wheatfields were once Polebrook Field. Miriam's house was the base hospital. She remembers well the intense excitement when the American B-17 Flying Fortress bombers first arrived from the United States. No one had seen planes that flew so high or that left vapor trails.
Of the American airmen, she says, "I thought they were absolutely tremendous . . . they won the war for us, no doubt about it." One of those she got to know best was Clark Gable, then an Air Force major, whom she delights in talking about, telling what a crack he was (they often went shooting together in the evenings, he at rooks, she at targets) and how he had almost no sense of humor.
More than three hundred missions over Germany were flown from her now tranquil fields. One colossal hangar still standing is used to store potatoes.
"You know I was the first person to install seat belts in a motorcar," she told me as we drove out to see the site of the old airfield. "It was in 1940, when the first American aviators arrived in civilian clothes, even before you got into the war. I saw the safety belts they had in their training planes and I said we ought to have those in motorcars." Using a girth from an old sidesaddle, she made up seat belts for her car and tried without success to have the idea patented.
It was during the war that she met and married a British commando and war hero named George Lane, a marriage that was dissolved in 1957 though he is still a good friend. To many of her scientific colleagues it also seemed that she did remarkably little with her mind all that time, little at all of consequence, which was puzzling largely because it was so out of character. Nor did she offer an explanation. Only long afterward did it become known that she had been involved with the famous Enigma project, working with the top-secret group at Bletchley Park, trying to crack the German code. Scientists from many fields were enlisted and marine biologists were known to be particularly good at such work. She got a medal from the British government for her part, yet still won't say anything about what she did.
"I never hated anything as much as I hated the war," she told me, recalling the airmen who did not come back. "It's impossible to describe it. You know, for years afterward when I woke up in the morning, my first thought was, 'Well, thank God the war's over.'"
From BRAVE COMPANIONS. Copyright © 1991 by David McCullough. Reprinted with permission.
Lawyer, Farmer, Revolutionary
In the cold, nearly colorless light of a New England winter, two men on horseback traveled the coast road below Boston, heading north. A foot or more of snow covered the landscape, the remnants of a Christmas storm that had blanketed Massachusetts from one end of the province to the other. Beneath the snow, after weeks of severe cold, the ground was frozen solid to a depth of two feet. Packed ice in the road, ruts as hard as iron, made the going hazardous, and the riders, mindful of the horses, kept at a walk.
Nothing about the harsh landscape differed from other winters. Nor was there anything to distinguish the two riders, no signs of rank or title, no liveried retinue bringing up the rear. It might have been any year and they could have been anybody braving the weather for any number of reasons. Dressed as they were in heavy cloaks, their hats pulled low against the wind, they were barely distinguishable even from each other, except that the older, stouter of the two did most of the talking.
He was John Adams of Braintree and he loved to talk. He was a known talker. There were some, even among his admirers, who wished he talked less. He himself wished he talked less, and he had particular regard for those, like George Washington, who somehow managed great reserve under almost any circumstance.
John Adams was a lawyer and a farmer, a graduate of Harvard College, the husband of Abigail Smith Adams, the father of four children. He was forty years old and he was a revolutionary.
Dismounted, he stood five feet seven or eight inches tall-about "middle size" in that day--and though verging on portly, he had a straight-up, square-shouldered stance and was, in fact, surprisingly fit and solid. His hands were the hands of a man accustomed to pruning his own trees, cutting his own hay, and splitting his own firewood.
In such bitter cold of winter, the pink of his round, clean-shaven, very English face would all but glow, and if he were hatless or without a wig, his high forehead and thinning hairline made the whole of the face look rounder still. The hair, light brown in color, was full about the ears. The chin was firm, the nose sharp, almost birdlike. But it was the dark, perfectly arched brows and keen blue eyes that gave the face its vitality. Years afterward, recalling this juncture in his life, he would describe himself as looking rather like a short, thick Archbishop of Canterbury.
As befitting a studious lawyer from Braintree, Adams was a "plain dressing" man. His oft-stated pleasures were his family, his farm, his books and writing table, a convivial pipe and cup of coffee (now that tea was no longer acceptable), or preferably a glass of good Madeira.
In the warm seasons he relished long walks and time alone on horseback. Such exercise, he believed, roused "the animal spirits" and "dispersed melancholy." He loved the open meadows of home, the "old acquaintances" of rock ledges and breezes from the sea. From his doorstep to the water's edge was approximately a mile.
He was a man who cared deeply for his friends, who, with few exceptions, were to be his friends for life, and in some instances despite severe strains. And to no one was he more devoted than to his wife, Abigail. She was his "Dearest Friend," as he addressed her in his letters--his "best, dearest, worthiest, wisest friend in the world"--while to her he was "the tenderest of husbands," her "good man."
John Adams was also, as many could attest, a great-hearted, persevering man of uncommon ability and force. He had a brilliant mind. He was honest and everyone knew it. Emphatically independent by nature, hardworking, frugal--all traits in the New England tradition--he was anything but cold or laconic as supposedly New Englanders were. He could be high-spirited and affectionate, vain, cranky, impetuous, self-absorbed, and fiercely stubborn; passionate, quick to anger, and all-forgiving; generous and entertaining. He was blessed with great courage and good humor, yet subject to spells of despair, and especially when separated from his family or during periods of prolonged inactivity.
Ambitious to excel--to make himself known-he had nonetheless recognized at an early stage that happiness came not from fame and fortune, "and all such things," but from "an habitual contempt of them," as he wrote. He prized the Roman ideal of honor, and in this, as in much else, he and Abigail were in perfect accord. Fame without honor, in her view, would be "like a faint meteor gliding through the sky, shedding only transient light."
As his family and friends knew, Adams was both a devout Christian and an independent thinker, and he saw no conflict in that. He was hard-headed and a man of "sensibility," a close observer of human folly as displayed in everyday life and fired by an inexhaustible love of books and scholarly reflection. He read Cicero, Tacitus, and others of his Roman heroes in Latin, and Plato and Thucydides in the original Greek, which he considered the supreme language. But in his need to fathom the "labyrinth" of human nature, as he said, he was drawn to Shakespeare and Swift, and likely to carry Cervantes or a volume of English poetry with him on his journeys. "You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket," he would tell his son Johnny.
From JOHN ADAMS. Copyright © 2001 by David McCullough. Reprinted with permission.
A Way of Life That Vanished
The club had been organized in Pittsburgh in 1879. It owned the dam, the lake, and about 160 acres besides. By 1889 sixteen cottages had been built along the lake, as well as boathouses and stables. The cottages were set out in an orderly line among the trees, not very far apart, and only a short way back from the water. They looked far too substantial really to be called "cottages." Nearly every one of them was three stories tall, with high ceilings, long windows, a deep porch downstairs, and, often as not, another little porch or two upstairs tucked under sharp-peaked roofs. The Lippincott house with its two sweeping front porches, one set on top of the other, and its fancy jigsaw trim, looked like a Mississippi riverboat. The Moorhead house was Queen Anne style, which was "all the rage" then; it had seventeen rooms and a round tower at one end with tinted glass windows. And the Philander Knox house, next door, was not much smaller.
But even the largest of them was dwarfed by the clubhouse. It had enough windows and more than enough porch for ten houses. There were forty-seven rooms inside. During the season most of the club members and their guests stayed there, and the rule was that everyone had to take his meals there in the main dining room, where 150 could sit down at one time.
In the "front rooms" there were huge brick fireplaces for chilly summer nights, billiard tables, and heavy furniture against the walls. In summer, after the midday dinner, the long front porch was crowded with cigar-smoking industrialists taking the air off the water. String hammocks swung under the trees. Young women in long white dresses, their faces shaded under big summer hats, strolled the boardwalks in twos and threes, or on the arms of very proper-looking young men in dark suits and derbies. Cottages were noisy with big families, and on moonlight nights there were boating parties on the lake and the sound of singing and banjos across the black water.
In all the talk there would be about the lake in the years after it had vanished, the boats, perhaps more than anything else, would keep coming up over and over again. Boats of any kind were a rare sight in the mountains. . . .
The club fleet included fifty rowboats and canoes, sailboats, and two little steam yachts that went puttering about flying bright pennants and trailing feathers of smoke from their tall funnels. There was even an electric catamaran, a weird-looking craft with a searchlight mounted up front, which had been built by a young member, Louis Clarke, who liked to put on a blue sailor's outfit for his cruises around the lake.
But it was the sailboats that made the greatest impression. Sailboats on the mountain! It seemed almost impossible in a country where water was always a tree-crowded creek or stream, wild and dangerous in the spring, not much better than ankle-deep in the hottest months. Yet there they were: white sails moving against the dark forest across a great green mirror of a lake so big that you could see miles and miles of sky in it.
From THE JOHNSTOWN FLOOD. Copyright © 1968 by David McCullough. Reprinted with permission.
The Good Gray Roosevelts
For several hundred years the good, solid Roosevelts had kept to their mercantile pursuits, content with the same horizons. Seldom had any of them ventured beyond the confined of Manhattan Island for reasons other than business, and never longer than necessary. They had lived and applied their renowned family acumen, met and married their Dutch wives, bred, prospered, and died, generation after generation, all within a radius of about three miles. "The Roosevelt stock," observed the New York World, "has always been noted for a tendency . . . to cling to the fixed and the venerable." A move from one Manhattan address to another was as serious a disruption of the pattern as a true Roosevelt cared to suffer in a lifetime. CVS [Cornelius Van Schaack] had been born in Maiden Lane; the family business had been located in Maiden Lane since 1797. When, in the 1830s, CVS at last succumbed to the tide of fashion and built the house on Union Square, at 14th Street and Broadway, he did so with the consoling thought that by going that far uptown he had at least relieved his progeny for several generations from ever having to move again.
One searches the Roosevelt family history nearly in vain for a sign of daring or spontaneity or a sense of humor. The family reputation for probity in business and personal conduct demanded certain restraints, of course, and so uniform absence of color may have been partly disguise, another bow to appearances. There were also exceptions. One Nicholas Roosevelt, an uncle of CVS, had an interest in steamboats early in the century and made the first descent by steam down the Mississippi from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. But he and a figure like Robert stand out against the rest of the line as conspicuous as mutations. It is said of James Alfred Roosevelt, for example, that if he ever had an unconventional thought in his life he kept it to himself. Of his private, domestic enthusiasms, it is recorded that he was inordinately fond of waffles.
From MORNINGS ON HORSEBACK. Copyright © 1981 by David McCullough. Reprinted with permission.
Digging the Canal
For seven years Culebra Cut was never silent, not even for an hour. Labor trains carrying some six thousand men began rolling in Cover for The Path Between the Seasshortly after dawn every morning except Sunday. Then promptly at seven the regular work resumed until five. But it was during the midday break and again after five o'clock that the dynamite crews took over and began blasting. At night came the repair crews, men by the hundreds, to tend the shovels, which were now being worked to the limit and taking a heavy beating. Night track crews set off surface charges of dynamite to make way for new spurs for the shovels, while coal trains servicing the shovels rumbled in, their headlights playing steadily and eerily up and down the Cut until dawn. And though it was official I.C.C. policy that the Sabbath be observed as a day of rest, there was always some vital piece of business in the Cut that could not wait until Monday.
From THE PATH BETWEEN THE SEAS. Copyright © 1977 by David McCullough. Reprinted with permission.
The Luncheon Party
On Tuesday, August 18, 1944, in the shade of a magnolia tree said to have been planted by Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman had lunch on the South Lawn of the White House. Because of the heat, Roosevelt suggested they take off their jackets. So it was in their shirtsleeves, seated at a small round table set with crystal and silver from the Coolidge years, that the two men posed together for photographers for the first time.
In background, interests, personality, in everything from the sounds of their voices to the kind of company they enjoyed to the patterns of their careers, they could not have been more dissimilar. Roosevelt was now in his twelfth year in office. He had been President for so long and through such trying, stirring times that it seemed to many Americans, including the junior Senator from Missouri, that he was virtually the presidency himself. His wealth, education, the social position he had known since boyhood were everything Harry Truman never had. Life and customs at the Roosevelt family estate on the upper Hudson River were as far removed from Jackson County, Missouri, as some foreign land. Roosevelt fancied himself a farmer. To Truman, Roosevelt was the kind of farmer who had never pulled a weed, never known debt, or crop failure, or a father's call to roll out of bed at 5:30 on a bitter cold morning.
Truman, with his Monday night poker games, his Masonic ring and snappy bow ties, the Main Street pals, the dry Missouri voice, was entirely, undeniably middle American. He had only to open his mouth and his origins were plain. It wasn't just that he came from a particular part of the country, geographically, but from a specific part of the American experience, an authentic pioneer background, and a specific place in the American imagination. His Missouri, as he loved to emphasize, was the Missouri of Mark Twain and Jesse James. In manner and appearance, he might have stepped from a novel by Sinclair Lewis, an author Truman is not known to have read. To anyone taking him at face value, this might have been George F. Babbitt having lunch under the Jackson magnolia.
Roosevelt, on the other hand, was from the world of Edith Wharton stories and drawings by Charles Dana Gibson. He was the authentic American patrician come to power, no matter that he loved politics or a night of poker with "the boys" quite as much as the Senator from Missouri, or that he, too, was a Mason and chose a bow tie as many mornings as not, including this one. Roosevelt had been given things all of his life--houses, furniture, servants, travels abroad. Truman has been given almost nothing. He had never had a house to call his own. He had been taught from childhood, and by rough experience, that what he became would depend almost entirely on what he did. Roosevelt had always known the possibilities open to him--indeed, how much was expected of him--because of who he was.
Both were men of exceptional determination, with great reserves of personal courage and cheerfulness. They were alike too in their enjoyment of people. (The human race, Truman once told a reporter, was an "excellent outfit.") Each had an active sense of humor and was inclined to be dubious of those who did not. But Roosevelt, who loved stories, loved also to laugh at his own, while Truman was more of a listener and laughed best when somebody else told "a good one." Roosevelt enjoyed flattery, Truman was made uneasy by it. Roosevelt loved the subtleties of human relations. He was a master of the circuitous solution to problems, of the pleasing if ambiguous answer to difficult questions. He was sensitive to nuances in a way Harry Truman never was and never would be. . . .
Roosevelt, as would be said, was a kind of master conjurer. He had imagination, he was theatrical. If, as his cousins saw him, Harry Truman was Horatio, then Franklin Roosevelt was Prospero. . . .
In some ways Truman would have felt more in common, more at ease, with the earlier Roosevelt, Theodore, had he been host for the lunch. They were much more alike in temperament. They could have talked books, Army life, or the boyhood handicap of having to wear thick spectacles. Or possibly the old fear of being thought a sissy. Like Theodore Roosevelt, and unlike Franklin, Truman had never known what it was to be glamorous.
From TRUMAN. Copyright © 1992 by David McCullough. Reprinted with permission.
The Title Always Comes Last
Last year, David McCullough and NEH Chairman Bruce Cole talked about the humanities and the role they play in a democracy. This article is adapted from that conversation.
Bruce Cole: In many ways, you're the ideal historian because you bring first-rate scholarship to a wide audience in a way that is both literary and accessible.
David McCullough: Well, thank you. It's what I try very hard to do. My shorthand answer is that I try to write the kind of book that I would like to read. If I can make it clear and interesting and compelling to me, then I hope maybe it will be for the reader.
I just thank my father and mother, my lucky stars, that I had the advantage of an education in the humanities. Being an English major at Yale in the 1950s was a privilege. People like John O'Hara, John Hersey, Brendan Gill, and Thornton Wilder were around on the campus. There were days when I sat down at the communal lunch table beside Thornton Wilder. There was the daily themes course, which was taught by Robert Penn Warren. Their presence was a reminder of how very far one had to go beyond Yale.
After Yale I served a valuable apprenticeship, first at Time and Life, then at the U.S. Information Agency, then at American Heritage, trying to learn how to do this. Once I discovered the endless fascination of doing the research and of doing the writing, I knew I had found what I wanted to do in my life.
Every book is a new journey. I never felt I was an expert on a subject as I embarked on a project. Mary Lee Settle, who is a writer whose work I greatly admire, said, "I write to find out." That says it perfectly.
With a book like John Adams, I've spent six glorious years in the eighteenth century. To go into that time, it is necessary not to just read what they wrote--"they" meaning John and Abigail Adams and others in their circle--but to try and read what they read. To go back and read Swift and Defoe and Samuel Johnson and Smollett and Pope--all those people we had to read in college English courses--to read them now is to have one of the infinite pleasures in life.
To me history ought to be a source of pleasure. It isn't just part of our civic responsibility. To me it's an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is. I have certain people that I try to keep in mind as an example.
Cole: Do you think about them while you're writing?
McCullough: Yes, very often. The more I go back and reread Francis Parkman, the more admiration I have for him. I paint, too, and--maybe it's true in all the arts--it's an antidote to hubris. You are reminded again and again of how far you have to go compared to what other people have done. You stand in front of one of those great paintings or you pick up Samuel Johnson's essays or Francis Parkman's works on the French and Indian War, and it's humbling. But it also is affirming in the sense that you realize that you're working in a great tradition.
Cole: Absolutely. Were I a painter standing in front of Rembrandt's Late Self-portrait in the Frick, I'd have given up. But it is inspiring. It does show you what can be done.
McCullough: The first time I saw Botticelli's The Birth of Venus in the Uffizi Gallery, it was as if I'd been struck. First of all, it was so much bigger than I ever had any idea it would be. And it's so glorious. It not only puts your own abilities in perspective, it certainly dashes any arrogance we might have about how far we've progressed over the centuries. Who in the world could do that today? Nobody. I would have flown all the way to Italy, taken the train up from Rome and back, and then home again, just to have seen that painting.
Cole: One of the things you never get from photographs is a sense of the physicality of the painting or of its scale.
When you teach art history you show slides. They are exactly the same size, and your students only have a vague approximation. When you actually see the thing it comes as a revelation.
To return for a moment to this question of history for a larger audience, aside from Parkman who are your heroes?
McCullough: There are certain books that I like very much. Reveille in Washington. I love Barbara Tuchman's work, particularly The Proud Tower. Paul Horgan's biography of Archbishop Lamy is a masterpiece. Wallace Stegner's book on John Wesley Powell I'm fond of.
I like some of the present-day people: Robert Caro's first volume on Lyndon Johnson was brilliant. I care for some of the best of the Civil War writing: Shelby Foote, for example, and Bruce Catton's The Stillness at Appomattox. It was Catton's Stillness at Appomattox that started me reading about the Civil War, and then on to people like Tuchman and others. There is a wonderful book called The Reason Why, about the Charge of the Light Brigade--and biographies--Henri Troyat's Tolstoy, for example.
I work very hard on the writing, writing and rewriting and trying to weed out the lumber. I'm very aware how many distractions the reader has in life today, how many good reasons there are to put the book down. To hold the reader's attention, you have to bring the person who's reading the book inside the experience of the time: What was it like to have been alive then? What were these people like as human beings?
When I did Truman, I had no idea what woods I was venturing into. Had I known it was going to take me ten years, I never would have done it. In retrospect, I'm delighted now that I didn't know.
I love all sides of the work but that doesn't mean it isn't hard. There have been times when a book was taking year after year--not with this one so much, but with The Path Between the Seas--when I'd come down to Washington to do research in the National Archives, hoping I wouldn't find anything new because it could set me back another year or two.
By the same token, to open up a box of the death certificates kept by the French at the hospital in Ancon, at Panama City and to read the personal details of those who died--their names, their age, where they came from, height, color of eyes--was a connection with the reality of them, the mortal tale of that undertaking, that one can never find by doing the conventional kind of research with microfilm or Xeroxed copies.
Cole: Do you find the research or the writing harder? I think writing is just an agony that we're all addicted to.
McCullough: To me it's very hard. There are days when you just can't get it right. But I love both. There's an awful temptation to just keep on researching. There comes a point where you just have to stop, and start writing. When I began, I thought that the way one should work was to do all the research and then write the book. In time I began to understand that it's when you start writing that you really find out what you don't know and need to know.
Cole: I feel that way myself. It's a clarifying process. It really shows you where you have to fill in the gaps.
McCullough: You can target your efforts much more clearly. I love to go to the places where things happen. I like to walk the walk and see how the light falls and what winter feels like.
Cole: Have you done this for every book?
McCullough: Every book, yes.
Cole: At what stage during your writing do you do that?
McCullough: I've done it two ways: With the Truman book, I wrote the entire account of his experiences in World War I before going over to Europe to follow his tracks in the war. When I got there, there was a certain satisfaction in finding I had it right--it does look like that. But there were also many things that were quite different from what I had pictured.
And I like to get a sense of scale--whether it's a battlefield or a room or a house. The house that the Adamses lived in in London--our first embassy there--still stands. It's the only eighteenth-century house left on Grosvenor Square, and it's tiny. I find that eloquent that it's so small.
It's like Carpenters' Hall in Philadelphia. That's a beautiful little Georgian red brick structure, about fifty by fifty. It has all the ideals of the eighteenth century: balance and light. You go in there and you think: This is where the first Continental Congress met? One of the greatest beginnings in all of history began in this little room?
Cole: I was amazed about the populations of New York and Boston--how small they were and how big the British army was. That does help put it into perspective.
McCullough: When I read that the British army had landed thirty-two thousand troops--and I had realized, not very long before, that Philadelphia only had thirty thousand people in it--it practically lifted me out of my chair. They landed an army bigger than the entire population of the largest city in the country.
Cole: That's an amazing fact. It would be wonderful if there were more historians working in the way that you do. It seems to me that many academic historians are writing more and more for specialized audiences. It's always seemed to me that if you're passionate about something, you want to communicate that to the widest possible audience.
McCullough: I feel I'm working in a tradition that goes all the way back to Thucydides or Gibbon, if you want. They weren't academic historians either.
I can fairly be called an amateur because I do what I do, in the original sense of the word--for love, because I love it. On the other hand, I think that those of us who make our living writing history can also be called true professionals.
McCullough: I don't feel that there is a great divide between the work that I and others do and those in the academic world. There are superb writers who are academic historians: Bernard Bailyn, William Leuchtenburg, Kenneth Jackson. And there are people who are trying to write history for the general reader who can be quite tedious. That said, I do feel in my heart of hearts that if history isn't well written, it isn't going to be read, and if it isn't read it's going to die.
Cole: I agree.
McCullough: I feel that what I do is a calling. I would pay to do what I do if I had to. I will never live long enough to do the work I want to do: the books I would like to write, the ideas I would like to explore. I have to have the form in mind before I can write the book.
Cole: You find the architecture. Then when you get into it, do you find all sorts of surprises?
McCullough: Absolutely. It's why everybody should be able to go into the stacks. You find the books you didn't know you were looking for.
Cole: One of my mentors said, "Never use the card catalog. Get into the stacks and you'll make wonderful discoveries." I took that advice, much to the chagrin of librarians.
McCullough: I could not do what I do without the kindness, consideration, resourcefulness and work of librarians, particularly in public libraries.
It happens all the time. I have librarians that will call up and say: "You remember that thing you were looking for a year, two years ago, and we didn't know where it was? Well, we found it."
What started me writing history happened because of some curiosity that I had about some photographs I'd seen in the Library of Congress.
Cole: What were they?
McCullough: They were photographs taken of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, after the flood. A Pittsburgh photographer had somehow gotten his heavy glass plates and all that paraphernalia over the mountains into the city.
My wife and I--it was a Saturday--had gone to the Library of Congress to look up some things in the old prints and photographs department. There was a marvelous man there named Milton Kaplan, a specialist on prints and photographs. He took me to a table where they had just spread out these photographs they had acquired. We stopped to look. I was astounded by the violence of what had happened and the drama of it. I grew up in that part of Pennsylvania and I had heard about the Johnstown flood all my life. I knew that a dam had broken, but beyond that I didn't know anything, and I was curious. I took a book out of the library, and it wasn't very good. I took another book out and it was, if anything, even less satisfactory.
I remembered a line from an interview that Thornton Wilder had given to the Paris Review about how he came up with the ideas for the novels and the plays he wrote. He'd said, "I imagine a story I'd like to read in a book or see performed on the stage and if I find nobody has written it, I write it so I can read it in a book or perform it on the stage." I thought, well, why don't you try and write a book about the Johnstown flood that you wished you could read?
Cole: It was just this chance encounter with these photographs.
McCullough: Yes. Once I started doing the research I realized there were survivors of the flood still alive that I could interview--and I just knew I'd found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I had been writing for about twelve years. I knew pretty well how you could find things out, but I had never been trained in an academic way how to go about the research.
Cole: An amateur in the true sense of the word.
McCullough: People are so helpful. People will stop what they're doing to show you something, to walk with you through a section of the town, or explain how a suspension bridge really works.
Cole: They sense your enthusiasm.
McCullough: I do get enthusiastic. I have this urge to say, "Come on over here. Look at this. This is really worth your time."
Cole: That comes through in your books.
McCullough: All you are trying to do is to make it as interesting and as human as it really was. You don't have to gussy it up. The pull, the attraction of history, is in our human nature. What makes us tick? Why do we do what we do? How much is luck the deciding factor? I'm drawn particularly to stories that evolve out of the character of the protagonist.
Cole: It seems to me that so much of history is about vast, impersonal forces which act on people. Your books are not about that. Your books are about people, their strengths, their flaws, their heroism. I think that's one of the reasons that people are so drawn to your books.
McCullough: Well, Barbara Tuchman said, "There's no trick to interesting people in history or children in history." She said, "You can explain it in two words: Tell stories."
People ask, "Are you working on a book?" I say, "Yes." But I really want to say, "No, I'm working in a book. I'm inside it." I want to be inside the time.
First of all, you can make the argument that there's no such thing as the past. Nobody lived in the past.
Cole: That's right. They didn't know how it was all going to work out.
McCullough: They lived in the present. It is their present, not our present, and they don't know how it's going to come out. They weren't just like we are because they lived in that very different time. You can't understand them if you don't understand how they perceived reality and you don't understand that unless you understand the culture. I wish we had a less fancy word than "culture," because it sounds too pretentious.
Cole: And vague.
McCullough: Yes. What did they read? What poetry moved them? What music did they listen to? What did they eat? What were they afraid of? What was it like to travel from one place to another then?
Cole: One of the most vivid experiences I've had in that way was taking a couple of years to read all of Pepys's diaries.
McCullough: Wow. That's no small undertaking.
Cole: It took me years. It was bedtime reading. But that is exactly what I found so riveting: the sense of night without any illumination, no telephones, the communication, the hygiene, and the like told in this marvelous prose. It does transport you.
McCullough: That's one of the reasons I began John Adams as I did, with these two lone men on horseback riding through a bleak, cold winter landscape. For all intents and purposes, they're anonymous. They are coming through that winter scene, the snow and the wind, and they're going to ride nearly four hundred miles in that kind of weather, on horseback, to get to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
These were tough people. We see the men in their frilled shirts and their satin pants and the powdered hair and they look like fops. They look like softies. Nothing doing. They were tough. And life was tough.
And yet, of course, they were not gods. Particularly talking to college audiences, I say, never, never think of them as gods. They're human beings with all the failings, flaws, and weaknesses that are part of the human condition. They were imperfect. Life was short and they knew it could end almost at any time.
I've gotten so fascinated with the eighteenth century, I'm going to stay there. I once told my wife, "I may never come back." My next book is also set in the eighteenth century. It's about the Revolution, with the focus on the year 1776. It's about Washington and the army and the war. It's the nadir, the low point of the United States of America.
Cole: Do you have a title?
McCullough: No. The title always comes last. What I really work hard on is the beginning. Where do you begin? In what tone do you begin? I almost have to have a scene in my mind.
Cole: Does your training in painting help you?
McCullough: I expect so, or maybe it's just we've all been so conditioned by movies. I love Dickens. I love the way he sets a scene. He said, in his great admonition to writers, "Make me see." I try to make you see what's happening and smell it and hear it. I want to know what they had for dinner. I want to know how long it took to walk from where to where.
Cole: That's what makes it human.
McCullough: Yes. You get into it almost the way an actor gets into a part. I want to get into this material. You scratch the supposedly dead past anywhere and what you find is life.
Cole: That's wonderful.
McCullough: There are innumerable writing problems in an extended work. This book on Adams took a little more than six years. You, the writer, change in six years. The life around you changes. Your family changes. They grow up. They move away. The world is changing. You're also learning more about the subject. By the time you're writing the last chapters of the book, you know much more than you did when you started at the beginning.
Cole: What do you do with those early chapters?
McCullough: The voice has to stay the same. So you go back and work on them, in a way, as a painter will work all over the whole canvas. I work on the front and the back and the middle all at once.
I think it's best to pick a biographical subject who lives to a ripe old age. Older people tend to relax and speak their minds. They're dropping some of the masks that they've been wearing. There's a candor.
With Adams, for example, I had a character who was in motion virtually all of his life up until he left the White House in 1801. He was going to go back to Braintree, Massachusetts, and never leave there for twenty-five years, holding no office, having no influence. How in the world was I going to sustain that?
As it turned out, that's when the inward journey begins for John Adams, and that to me, in many ways, was the most interesting part of the book. He begins to realize that many of the things that he has thought or held to for so long he doesn't see as he did before.
The concept, for example, of the Enlightenment, that if one applied the combined intellectual efforts of a good society, there was no answer that couldn't be found. Well, he decided that really wasn't so, that inevitably there were unsolvable mysteries about life and that it was best that way.
Many of his reflections on his friends and what events in his life had mattered most went through transitions.
Cole: What promised to be an uneventful passage turned out to be quite an interesting segment of Adams's life, didn't it?
Cole: You mentioned that your new book is about the American Revolution. That brings to mind a study done not too long ago that surveyed fifty top colleges and universities. The students were asked questions taken from a high school curriculum, and the lack of historical knowledge was really appalling.
This strikes me as something that the tragedy of 9/11 brings home. That is, our country has been attacked. Not only the World Trade Center but really the idea of our country, the ideas generated by the founders. How are we going to defend this if we really don't know much about it?
McCullough: I have been lecturing at colleges and universities continuously for twenty-five years or more. From my experience I don't think there's any question whatsoever that the students in our institutions of higher learning have less grasp of American history than ever before. We are raising a generation of young Americans who are, to a very large degree, historically illiterate. It's not their faults. There's no problem about enlisting their interest in history. None. The problem is the teachers so often have no history in their background. Very often they were education majors and graduated knowing no subject. It's the same, I'm told, in biology or English literature or whatever.
If we think back through our own lives, the subjects that you liked best in school almost certainly were taught by the teachers you liked best. And the teacher you liked best was the teacher who cared about the subject she taught.
There was a noted professor of child psychology at the University of Pittsburgh named Margaret McFarland, whose most influential disciple is Fred Rogers, who has taught more children than any human being who ever lived. Fred Rogers likes to say that all he's done with his programs is based on the teachings of Margaret McFarland.
What she taught in essence is that attitudes aren't taught, they're caught. If the attitude of the teacher toward the material is positive, enthusiastic, committed and excited, the students get that. If the teacher is bored, students get that and they get bored, quickly, instinctively.
In my view, we have to rethink how we're teaching our teachers. There's very good work in this field being done by the National Council for History Education, which conducts summer seminars or clinics primarily for grade school teachers from all over the country. People like Ted Rabb, who is at Princeton, and Ken Jackson, who is at Columbia, are real American heroes. They are the ones that got this going.
Cole: Ted Rabb has worked closely with the NEH over the years.
McCullough: It's not just something that we should be sad about, or worried about, that these young people don't know any history. We should be angry. They are being cheated and they are being handicapped, and our way of life could very well be in jeopardy because of this.
Since September 11, it seems to me that never in our lifetime, except possibly in the early stages of World War II, has it been clearer that we have as a source of strength, a source of direction, a source of inspiration--our story. Yes, this is a dangerous time. Yes, this is a time full of shadows and fear. But we have been through worse before and we have faced more difficult days before. We have shown courage and determination, and skillful and inventive and courageous and committed responses to crisis before. We should draw on our story, we should draw on our history as we've never drawn before.
Cole: Our strength comes from our story.
McCullough: Absolutely. If we don't know who we are, if we don't know how we became what we are, we're going to start suffering from all the obvious detrimental effects of amnesia.
Cole: Collective amnesia.
McCullough: Furthermore, we face an enemy who believes in enforced ignorance. And it's what all that we stand for . . . is the open mind--
Cole: Right. Tolerance.
McCullough: --the generous spirit, the ideal of tolerance, freedom, education, opportunity. All that is in the paragraph that John Adams included in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which is the oldest written constitution still in use in the world today. It predates our national constitution by ten years. "Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties"--you have to have wisdom and knowledge as well as virtue to preserve your rights and liberties--"and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people"--in other words, everybody--"it shall be the duty"--the duty--"of legislators and magistrates in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them. . ."
Then he goes on to say what he means by education. And what he means by education clearly is everything. No boundaries. It's all important. ". . . to encourage . . . for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings, sincerity, good humor"--there will be good humor--"and all social affections"--
Cole: That's wonderful.
McCullough: --"and generous sentiments among the people."
There had never been any such statement in any proclamation or constitution ever in the history of the world. This was radical in its day. It's saying not just that it would be a good idea to educate people, it's saying it's the duty of the government.
The pursuit of happiness. What did they mean by "the pursuit of happiness"? They did not mean material wealth. They did not mean ease, luxury.
Cole: Happiness in our sense.
McCullough: As near as I can tell, they meant the life of the mind and the life of the spirit.
Adams wrote a letter to his boy, John Quincy, concerned that the boy not just be studying Greek and Latin, but that he be reading the great works in his own mother tongue, and particularly the English poets.
He says, "Read somewhat in the English poets every day. You will find them elegant, entertaining and constructive companions through your whole life."
Then he says, "In all the disquisitions you have heard concerning the happiness of life, has it ever been recommended to you to read poetry?" That's when he says this famous line, "You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket."
Cole: That's wonderful.
McCullough: Even more to the point is a very well known paragraph where he says, "I must study politics and war, so that my"--
Cole: "So the next generation"--
McCullough: --"can study art, music"--
Cole: That's one of my favorites.
McCullough: Absolutely right. At the very end of Adams's life, Adams's doctor wrote a letter to John Quincy to say, "I've just been to see him. But as weak as was his material frame, his mind was still enthroned."
Cole: That's wonderful.
McCullough: Yes. One of the regrets of my life is that I did not study Latin. I'm absolutely convinced, the more I understand these eighteenth-century people, that it was that grounding in Greek and Latin that gave them their sense of the classic virtues: the classic ideals of honor, virtue, the good society, and their historic examples of what they could try to live up to.
Cole: Yes. We have a new initiative at the NEH called "We the People," which is a response to 9/11. It is aimed at getting people in all walks of life thinking about what it means to be an American--our liberties, all those things we were attacked for. After 9/11, it seems to me that this is something essential. That's why it is so alarming that you have this kind of historical amnesia.
McCullough: There is a notable rise in popular interest in history as measured by the success, for example, of The History Channel on television. There are other measures: the long run that The American Experience has had on PBS, the success of the presidential series that C-SPAN ran, the reading audience for books like mine and Edmund Morris's Theodore Rex and others. The level of knowledge of those we're educating seems on the decline while the general interest seems to be on the rise.
Cole: That's the paradox. I think of The History Channel and The American Experience as a kind of public university.
McCullough: Maybe because so many people didn't learn these things in college, they're curious to find out. But we need to get them young. Little children can learn anything, just as they can learn a foreign language. The mind is so absorbent then. There ought to be a real program to educate teachers who want to teach grade school children about history.
Another good classroom program has the children act a part. In my granddaughter's fifth-grade class, two sections are doing the American presidents. Each child is a president and/or a first lady. I was astounded by how much they know. The child who is Dolley Madison or James K. Polk--they're never going to forget that.
I'm absolutely positive it's in our human nature to want to know about the past. The two most popular movies of all time, while not historically accurate, are about core historic events: Gone With the Wind and Titanic. There is a human longing to go back to other times. We all know how when we were children we asked our parents, "What was it like when you were a kid?" I think it probably has something to do with our survival as a species. For nine-tenths of the time that human beings have been on earth, knowledge that was essential to survival was transmitted from one generation to the next by the vehicle of story.
My strong feeling is that we must learn more about how we learn. I'm convinced that we learn by struggling to find the solution to a problem on our own--with some guidance, but getting in and getting our hands dirty and working it.
Cole: So we really understand it. When we do it that way, we really know it. It's not superimposed.
McCullough: If you had to take that typewriter or that automobile engine apart and put it back together, you'd never forget it.
Cole: That's right.
McCullough: I opened a closet in the attic of the old library at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute one beautiful fall afternoon, and there were all the records and the private correspondence and the scrapbooks and the photographs and the drawings of the Brooklyn Bridge, just stashed in that closet, no catalog, no index--nobody really knew what all was there--bundles of letters tied up with shoestrings the way it had been when the Roebling family turned it over.
I spent three years trying to untangle all that, trying to understand it. It's been thirty years, and I'm sure I could sit down now and take a test and do extremely well on that subject. I'll never ever forget it.
Cole: You put that engine together.
McCullough: We've all crammed for exams, maybe did very well on the exams, and three weeks later--
Cole: It's gone.
McCullough: --it's gone. So I think we have got to bring the lab technique to the teaching of the humanities to a far greater degree than we have. There are ways that can be done. And they're exciting.
I am adamant that we must not cut back on funding of the teaching of the arts in the schools: music, painting, theater, dance, all of it. The great thing about the arts is that the only way you learn how to do it is by doing it. If a child learns nothing but that as a guide to life, that's invaluable. You can't learn to play the piano without playing the piano, you can't learn to write without writing, and, in many ways, you can't learn to think without thinking. Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That's why it's so hard.
Cole: That's right. I don't think you know what you know until you write it.
McCullough: Exactly. We all know the old expression, "I'll work my thoughts out on paper." There's something about the pen that focuses the brain in a way that nothing else does. That is why we must have more writing in the schools, more writing in all subjects, not just in English classes.
The talent, including the talent for history--and I do think there are people who just have a talent for it, the way you have a talent for public speaking or music or whatever--it shouldn't be allowed to lie dormant. It should be brought alive.
Cole: Terrific. Thank you for taking the time to talk about the making of history--and the writing of it.
McCullough: I've enjoyed it.
The Course of Human Events
BY DAVID MCCULLOUGH
Dr. Cole, ladies and gentlemen, to be honored as I am tonight in the Capital of our country, in the presence of my family and many old friends, is for me almost an out-of-body experience. Had someone told me forty years ago, as I began work on my first book, trying to figure out how to go about it, that I would one day be standing here, the recipient of such recognition, I would, I think, have been stopped dead in my tracks.
I've loved the work, all the way along -- the research, the writing, the rewriting, so very much that I've learned about the history of the nation and about human nature. I love the great libraries and archives where I've been privileged to work, and I treasure the friendships I've made with the librarians and archivists who have been so immensely helpful. I've been extremely fortunate in my subjects, I feel. The reward of the work has always been the work itself, and more so the longer I've been at it. The days are never long enough, and I've kept the most interesting company imaginable with people long gone. Some I've come to know better than many I know in real life, since in real life we don't get to read other people's mail.
I have also been extremely fortunate in the tributes that have come my way. But this singular honor, the Jefferson Lecture, is for me a high point, and my gratitude could not be greater.
* * *
Among the darkest times in living memory was the early part of 1942 -- when Hitler's armies were nearly to Moscow; when German submarines were sinking our oil tankers off the coasts of Florida and New Jersey, within sight of the beaches, and there was not a thing we could do about it; when half our navy had been destroyed at Pearl Harbor. We had scarcely any air force. Army recruits were drilling with wooden rifles. And there was no guarantee whatever that the Nazi war machine could be stopped.
It was then, in 1942, that the classical scholar Edith Hamilton issued an expanded edition of her book, The Greek Way, in which, in the preface, she wrote the following:
I have felt while writing these new chapters a fresh realization of the refuge and strength the past can be to us in the troubled present.... Religion is the great stronghold for the untroubled vision of the eternal; but there are others too. We have many silent sanctuaries in which we can find breathing space to free ourselves from the personal, to rise above our harassed and perplexed minds and catch sight of values that are stable, which no selfish and timorous preoccupations can make waver, because they are the hard-won permanent possessions of humanity....
When the world is storm-driven and the bad that happens and the worse that threatens are so urgent as to shut out everything else from view, then we need to know all the strong fortresses of the spirit which men have built through the ages.
* * *
In the Rotunda of the Capitol hangs a large painting of forty-seven men in a room. The scene is as familiar, as hallowed a moment in our history as any we have.
John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence has been a main attraction on Capitol tours for a very long time, since 1826. It draws crowds continuously, as it should, every day -- about three to five million people a year. It's probably been seen by more Americans than any painting ever -- and the scene as portrayed never took place.
Trumbull said it was meant to represent July 4, 1776, and that's the popular understanding. But the Declaration of Independence was not signed on July 4. The signing began on August 2, and continued through the year as absent delegates returned to Philadelphia. No formal signing ceremony ever took place.
The scene comes closer to portraying June 28, when Thomas Jefferson submitted his first draft of the Declaration. But then, too, there was no such dramatic gathering.
The room is wrong, the doors are in the wrong place. The chairs are wrong. (They were Windsor chairs of the plainest kind.) There were no heavy draperies at the windows. The decorative display of military trophies and banners on the back wall, is purely Trumbull's way of dressing the set.
Yet none of this really matters. What does matter greatly -- particularly in our own dangerous, uncertain time -- is the symbolic power of the painting, and where Trumbull put the emphasis.
The scene proclaims that in Philadelphia in the year 1776 a momentous, high-minded statement of far-reaching consequence was committed to paper. It was not the decree of a king or a sultan or emperor or czar, or something enacted by a far-distant parliament. It was a declaration of political faith and brave intent freely arrived at by an American congress. And that was something entirely new under the sun.
And there Trumbull has assembled them, men like other men, each, importantly, a specific, identifiable individual.
The accuracy is in the faces. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin were painted from life. Before he was finished, Trumbull painted or sketched thirty-six of the faces from life. It took him years and he spared no expense, because he wanted it right. He wanted us to know who they were.
Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin stand front and center exactly as they did in the real drama of the Revolution.
A number who signed the Declaration are not shown. Several who did not sign are present.
Most conspicuous by his absence is George Washington who had departed Congress the year before to take command of the army.
* * *
Lord Bolingbroke, the eighteenth century political philosopher, said that "history is philosophy teaching by examples." Thucydides is reported to have said much the same thing two thousand years earlier.
Jefferson saw history as largely a chronicle of mistakes to be avoided.
Daniel Boorstin, the former Librarian of Congress, has wisely said that trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.
One might also say that history is not about the past. If you think about it, no one ever lived in the past. Washington, Jefferson, John Adams, and their contemporaries didn't walk about saying, "Isn't this fascinating living in the past! Aren't we picturesque in our funny clothes!" They lived in the present. The difference is it was their present, not ours. They were caught up in the living moment exactly as we are, and with no more certainty of how things would turn out than we have.
Nor were they gods. Indeed, to see them as gods or god-like is to do disservice to their memories. Gods, after all, don't deserve a lot of credit because they can do whatever they wish.
Those we call the Founders were living men. None was perfect. Each had his human flaws and failings, his weaknesses. They made mistakes, let others down, let themselves down.
Washington could be foolhardy and ill-tempered. Adams could be vain, irritable, Jefferson evasive, at times duplicitous. And even in their day, many saw stunning hypocrisy in the cause of liberty being championed by slave masters.
They were imperfect mortals, human beings. Jefferson made the point in the very first line of the Declaration of Independence. "When in the course of human events..." The accent should be on the word human.
And of course their humanity is not evident only in their failings. It's there in Adams's heart-felt correspondence with his wife and children, in Jefferson's love of gardening, his fascination, as he said, in every blade of grass that grows.
Washington had a passionate love of architecture and interior design. Everything about his home at Mt. Vernon was done to his ideas and plans. Only a year before the war, he began an ambitious expansion of the house, doubling its size. How extremely important this was to him, the extent of his esthetic sense, few people ever realized. He cared about every detail -- wall paper, paint color, hardware, ceiling ornaments -- and hated to be away from the project even for a day.
The patriotism and courage of these all-important protagonists stand as perhaps the most conspicuous and enduring testaments to their humanity. When those who signed the Declaration of Independence pledged their "lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor," that was no mere verbiage. They were putting their lives on the line. They were declaring themselves traitors to the King. If caught they would be hanged.
Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, who suffered from palsy, is said to have remarked as he signed his name, "My hand trembles, but my heart does not."
Hopkins was a grand old figure who had seen a lot of life. You can't miss him in the Trumbull painting. He's at the back with his broad-brimmed Quaker hat on. In after-hours he loved to drink rum and expound on his favorite writers. "He read Greek, Roman, and British history, and was familiar with English poetry," John Adams wrote. "And the flow of his soul made his reading our own, and seemed to bring recollection in all we had ever read."
We must never forget either how hard they worked. Nothing came easy. Nothing. Just getting through a day in the eighteenth century meant difficulties, discomforts, and effort of a kind we seldom even think about.
But it is in their ideas about happiness, I believe, that we come close to the heart of their being, and to their large view of the possibilities in their Glorious Cause.
In general, happiness was understood to mean being at peace with the world in the biblical sense, under one's own "vine and fig tree." But what did they, the Founders, mean by the expression, "pursuit of happiness"?
It didn't mean long vacations or material possessions or ease. As much as anything it meant the life of the mind and spirit. It meant education and the love of learning, the freedom to think for oneself.
Jefferson defined happiness as "tranquility and occupation." For Jefferson, as we know, occupation meant mainly his intellectual pursuits.
Washington, though less inclined to speculate on such matters, considered education of surpassing value, in part because he had had so little. Once, when a friend came to say he hadn't money enough to send his son to college, Washington agreed to help -- providing a hundred pounds in all, a sizable sum then -- and with the hope, as he wrote, that the boy's education would "not only promote his own happiness, but the future welfare of others …." For Washington, happiness derived both from learning and employing the benefits of learning to further the welfare of others.
John Adams, in a letter to his son John Quincy when the boy was a student at the University of Leiden, stressed that he should carry a book with him wherever he went. And that while a knowledge of Greek and Latin were essential, he must never neglect the great works of literature in his own language, and particularly those of the English poets. It was his happiness that mattered, Adams told him. "You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket."
The Revolution was another of the darkest, most uncertain of times and the longest war in American history, until the Vietnam War. It lasted eight and a half years, and Adams, because of his unstinting service to his country, was separated from his family nearly all that time, much to his and their distress. In a letter from France he tried to explain to them the reason for such commitment.
I must study politics and war [he wrote] that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study paintings, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.
That was the upward climb envisioned for the good society in the burgeoning new American republic. And Adams was himself vivid proof of the transforming miracle of education. His father was a farmer, his mother almost certainly illiterate. But with the help of a scholarship, he was able to attend Harvard, where, as he said, he discovered books and "read forever."
His Harvard studies over, Adams began teaching school at Worcester, then virtually the frontier. One crystal night, twenty years before the Declaration of independence, he stood beneath a sky full of stars, "thrown into a kind of transport." He knew such wonders of the heavens to be the gifts of God, he wrote, but greatest of all was the gift of an inquiring mind.
But all the provisions that He has [made] for the gratification of our senses ... are much inferior to the provision, the wonderful provision, that He has made for the gratification of our nobler powers of intelligence and reason. He has given us reason to find out the truth, and the real design and true end of our existence.
He had decided to study law. "It will be hard work," he told a friend. "But the point is now determined, and I shall have the liberty to think for myself."
Of all the sustaining themes in our story as a nation, as clear as any has been the importance put on education, one generation after another, beginning with the first village academies in New England and the establishment of Harvard and the College of William and Mary. The place of education in the values of the first presidents is unmistakable.
Washington contributed generously, some $20,000 in stock to the founding of what would become Washington and Lee University in Virginia. His gift was the largest donation ever made to any educational institution in the nation until then, and has since grown to a substantial part of the endowment.
Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. But then it may be fairly said that Jefferson was a university unto himself.
The oldest written constitution still in use in the world today is the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, drafted by John Adams in 1778, just two years after the Declaration of Independence and fully a decade before our national Constitution. In many respects it is a rough draft of our national Constitution. But it also contains a paragraph on education that was without precedent. Though Adams worried that it would be rejected as too radical, it was passed unanimously. Listen, please, to what it says:
Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties. [Which is to say that there must be wisdom, knowledge, and virtue or all aspirations for the good society will come to nothing.] And as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people [that is, everyone], it shall be the duty [not something they might consider, but the duty] of legislatures and magistrates in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests and literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them ... public schools, and grammar schools in the towns.
And he goes on to define what he means by education. It is literature and the sciences, yes, but much more: agriculture, the arts, commerce, trades, manufacturers, "and a natural history of the country." It shall be the duty, he continues,
to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty [we will teach honesty] ... sincerity, [and, please note] good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people.
What a noble statement!
Years before, while still living under his father's roof, Adams had written in his diary, "I must judge for myself, but how can I judge, how can any man judge, unless his mind has been opened and enlarged by reading."
They were nearly all young men in 1776, it should be remembered, young men who believed, as Thomas Paine proclaimed, that the birth of a new world was at hand.
Jefferson was thirty-three, Adams, forty, Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia physician, was all of thirty when he signed the Declaration of Independence. Rush, one of the most interesting of them all, was a leader in the anti-slavery movement, a leader in prescribing humane treatment for the insane, and the first to champion the elective system in higher education.
When George Washington took command of the army, he was forty-three. He had never led an army in battle before in his life, any more than the others had had prior experience as revolutionaries or nation builders.
And what of Franklin? Franklin, oldest and wisest, is for me a special case.
* * *
I met my first revisionist historian when I was six.
His name was Amos and he was a mouse, an eighteenth century church mouse to be exact, one of twenty-six children who with their mother and father lived in Old Christ Church in Philadelphia. I can never be in Old Christ Church without wondering if perhaps some of Amos's line are still there, back behind the paneling.
Amos, who took up lodging in Benjamin Franklin's fur hat, is the narrator of a little book called Ben and Me by Robert Lawson.
Most so-called historians have had Franklin all wrong, according to Amos. "Ben was undoubtedly a splendid fellow, a great man, a patriot and all that," he writes, "but he was undeniably stupid at times and had it not been for me -- well, here's the true story..."
I was six, as I say, and I was hooked. I learned all about Philadelphia, printing presses, electricity, Franklin stoves, and the Palace of Versailles. I got to know Benjamin Franklin and, like Amos, relished his company.
And that was the start. I learned to love history by way of books. There was The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds, The Last of the Mohicans, with those haunting illustrations by the N. C. Wyeth, the Revolutionary War novel Drums by James Boyd, with still more Wyeth paintings.
That was in the day when children were put to bed when sick, and I remember lying there utterly, blissfully lost in those illustrations.
The first book I ever bought with my own money was a Modern Library edition of Richard Henry Dana's Two Years before the Mast. I was fifteen years old. In a book shop in Pittsburgh, I picked up the book from a table, opened to the start of chapter one, read the first sentence, and knew I had to have that book:
The fourteenth of August was the day fixed upon for the sailing of the brig Pilgrim, on her voyage from Boston, round Cape Horn, to the western coast of America.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, I had never seen the ocean or heard the cry of a sea gull or smelled salt air.
I read Kenneth Robert's Oliver Wiswell, Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Louis Rey, Frederick Lewis Allen's Only Yesterday, and A Night to Remember by Walter Lord. I thank my lucky stars for Robert Abercrombie, who taught history my senior year in high school and made Morison and Commager's The Growth of the American Republic required reading. In the college years, I must have read a half dozen novels on the Second World War, including Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny and Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions.
Bruce Catton's A Stillness at Appomattox, a graduation present, started me reading about the Civil War, and started me thinking that maybe some day I might try writing something of the kind.
I loved all those books, and they're all still in print, still being read, which is no mystery. They're superbly well done, wonderfully well written.
There should be no hesitation ever about giving anyone a book to enjoy, at any age. There should be no hesitation about teaching future teachers with books they will enjoy. No harm's done to history by making it something someone would want to read.
* * *
We are what we read more than we know. And it was true no less in that distant founding time. Working on the life of John Adams, I tried to read not only what he and others of his day wrote, but what they read. And to take up and read again works of literature of the kind we all remember from high school or college English classes was not only a different kind of research, but pure delight.
I read Swift, Pope, Defoe, Sterne, Fielding, and Samuel Johnson again after forty years, and Tobias Smollett and Don Quixote for the first time.
I then began to find lines from these writers turning up in the letters of my American subjects, turning up without attribution, because the lines were part them, part of who they were and how they thought and expressed themselves.
But we do the same, more often than we realize. Every time we "refuse to budge an inch," or speak of "green-eyed jealousy," or claim to be "tongue-tied," we're quoting Shakespeare? When we say "a little learning is a dangerous thing," or "to err is human," or observe sagely that "fools rush in where angels fear to tread," we're borrowing from Alexander Pope, just as when you "slept not a wink," or "smell a rat," or "turn over a new leaf," or declare "mum's the word," you're quoting Cervantes?
When young Nathan Hale was hanged by the British as a spy in New York in 1776, he famously said as his last words, "My only regret is that I have but one life to lose for my country." That's a line from the popular play of the eighteenth century, Cato by Joseph Addison, a play they all knew. Washington, who loved the theater, is believed to have seen it half a dozen times.
Imagine how it must have been for Nathan Hale, about to be hanged. Who, in such a moment, could possibly think of something eloquent to say. I think he was throwing that line right back at those British officers. After all, Cato was their play.
I imagine him delivering the line, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."
One needs to read the great political philosophers -- Hume, Locke, Ferguson, Montesquieu -- whose writings had such profound influence on the founders. Yet there is hardly a more appealing description of the Enlightenment outlook on life and learning than a single sentence in a popular novel of the day, A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne.
What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life by him who interests his heart in everything.
* * *
The stimulation, the motivation, the hard work and pleasures of writing history are mainly in the material. It's the finding and figuring out that keep you in pursuit. And you never know... you never know where you will find something, see something that's gone unnoticed, or make some unexpected connection that brings things into focus in a new or different way.
The truth of history is the objective always. But the truth isn't just the facts. You can have all the facts imaginable and miss the truth, just as you can have facts missing or some wrong, and reach the larger truth.
As the incomparable Francis Parkman wrote:
Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more than a research, however patient and scrupulous, into special facts. Such facts may be detailed with the most minute exactness, and yet the narrative, taken as a whole, may be unmeaning or untrue. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time. He must study events in their bearings near and remote; in the character, habits, and manners of those who took part in them. He must himself be, as it were, a sharer or spectator of the action he describes.
"I hear all the notes, but I hear no music," is the old -piano teacher's complaint. There has to be music. History at best has to be literature or it will go to dust.
The work of history -- writing history, teaching history -- calls for mind and heart. Empathy is essential. The late J. H. Plumb, the eminent British historian, said that what is needed is more "heart-wise" historians.
What happened? And why? Who were those people? What was it like to have been alive then, in their shoes, in their skins? Of what were they afraid? What didn't they know?
Studying his face in the mirror, John Adams decided, "I am but an ordinary man. The times alone have destined me to fame." He was fishing. He was anything but ordinary and it is not possible to understand what happened in that tumultuous, protean time without knowing and understanding him and the others.
There are, of course, great sweeping tides in history -- plague, famine, financial panic, the calamities of nature and war. Yet time and again, more often than not history turns on individual personality, or character.
I am presently at work on a book about the Revolution, with the focus on Washington and the army in the year 1776, which in the last months was the nadir of the fortunes of the United States of America, when the army was down to little more than three thousand men. By December, by all signs, the war was over and we had lost. Fortunately Washington did not see it that way. Had it not been for Washington and his little ragtag army, the Declaration of independence and all it promised would have truly been "a skiff made of paper."
There are no paintings or sketches of the soldiers done at the time. Most that we have are by Trumbull, himself a veteran of the war, but his were all painted afterward.
It's in the surviving diaries, journals, letters, pension files, in descriptions posted for deserters, that those in the ranks begin to emerge as flesh-and-blood individual men caught up in something far bigger than they knew.
There was Jabez Fitch, for example, a Connecticut farmer with eight children, who liked soldiering and kept a diary describing the war as he saw it day by day. There was young John Greenwood, a fifer boy, who at age sixteen walked all alone 150 miles from Maine to Boston to join up with Washington's army. And Mathias Smith, a deserter, who was described as: "a small smart fellow, a saddler by trade, grey headed, has a younger look in his face, is apt to say, 'I swear, I swear!' And between his words will spit smart; had on a green coat, and an old red great coat; he is a right gamester, although he wears something of a sober look."
"Greece," wrote Edith Hamilton, "never lost sight of the individual." And neither should we, ever.
They were hungry, starving some of them, and without warm clothes as winter set in. Not all were patriots. Not all were heroes. Not all came home. But they were once as alive as you and I.
"Posterity who are to reap the blessings," wrote Abigail Adams, "will scarcely be able to conceive the hardships and sufferings of their ancestors."
* * *
History is -- or should be -- a lesson in appreciation. History helps us keep a sense of proportion.
History teaches that there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman, that we are all shaped by the influences of others, including so many we've never seen because they are back there in history.
History teaches that nothing happens in isolation, or without cause and effect, and that nothing ever had to happen as it did.
History teaches tolerance, and the value of common sense, and as Voltaire (and who knows how many others) observed, common sense is anything but common.
History is about high achievement, glorious works of art, music, architecture, literature, philosophy, science and medicine -- not just politics and the military -- as the best of politicians and generals have readily attested. History is about leadership, and the power of ideas. History is about change, because the world has never not been changing, indeed because life itself is change.
History is the course of human events. And it must therefore be, if truthful, about failure, injustice, struggle, suffering, disappointment, and the humdrum. History demonstrates often in brutal fashion the evils of enforced ignorance and demagoguery. History is a source of strength, a constant reminder of the courage of others in times more trying and painful than our own. As Churchill reminded us, "We have not journeyed all this way... because we are made of sugar candy."
History is filled with voices that reach out and lift the spirits, sometimes from the distance of centuries.
Is it possible to imagine not learning from the wisest, most thoughtful people who shaped the world, or to fail to take heart from manifest courage?
Is life not infinitely more interesting and enjoyable when one can stand in a great historic place or walk historic ground, and know something of what happened there and in whose footsteps you walk?
For a free, self-governing people something more than a vague familiarity with history is essential, if we are to hold on to and sustain our freedom.
But I don't think history should ever be made to seem like some musty, unpleasant pill that has to be swallowed solely for our civic good. History, let us agree, can be an immense source of pleasure. For almost anyone with the normal human allotment of curiosity and an interest in people, it is a field day.
Why would anyone wish to be provincial in time, any more than being tied down to one place through life, when the whole reach of the human drama is there to experience in some of the greatest books ever written.
I guess if I had to boil it down to a few words, I would say history is a larger way of looking at life.
* * *
One of our innumerable advantages as a nation and a society is that we have such a specific moment of origin as the year 1776. And that we know who the Founders were -- indeed we know an immense amount about an immense number of those at all levels who in that revolutionary time brought the United States of America and the reality of freedom into being.
But while it is essential to remember them as individual mortal beings no more perfect in every way than are we, and that they themselves knew this better than anyone, it is also essential to understand that they knew their own great achievements to be imperfect and incomplete.
The American experiment was from its start an unfulfilled promise. There was much work to be done. There were glaring flaws to correct, unfinished business to attend to, improvements and necessary adjustments to devise in order to keep pace with the onrush of growth and change and expanding opportunities.
Those brave, high-minded people of earlier times gave us stars to steer by -- a government of laws not of men, equal justice before the law, the importance of the individual, the ideal of equality, freedom of religion, freedom of thought and expression, and the love of learning.
From them, in our own dangerous and promising present, we can take heart. As Edith Hamilton said of the Greeks, we can "catch sight of values that are stable because they are the hard-won possessions of humanity."
Blessed we are. And duty bound, to continue the great cause of freedom, in their spirit and in their memory and for those who are to carry on next in their turn.
There is still much work to be done, still much to learn.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness ....
On we go.
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